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Orioles try to find their Way again

April 03, 2009|By DAVID GINSBURG

BALTIMORE -- Andy MacPhail grew up an Orioles fan during a time when the team achieved success by drawing talent from the minor leagues.

Now president of baseball operations, MacPhail is intent upon helping Baltimore return to prominence the Oriole Way -- back when the organization groomed young players for the major leagues.

Several of Baltimore's best arms will start the season playing Triple-A or Double-A ball. Instead of thrusting prospects such as Brian Matusz and Brad Bergesen onto the mound to pitch against the Boston Red Sox, MacPhail will take his chances with a makeshift starting rotation that could include castoffs Mark Hendrickson, Adam Eaton and Alfredo Simon.

"Clearly we don't have the track record in that area that other clubs do at the present time," MacPhail said of his starting pitching. "We hope to improve, but we're going to have to make sure that we don't do it at the expense of our future."

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The organization is already in a wait-until-next-year mode, even though, after 11 straight losing seasons, the Orioles still hope to break .500 in 2009.

"I think we have as good a chance as anybody to put up a winning season this year because of the defense and the hitting," pitcher Jeremy Guthrie said. "The pitching will shake out. We're confident the guys we have will fill the role. The bullpen speaks for itself. I think we're going in the right direction; there are definite improvements that are visible."

But when the Orioles are introduced at Camden Yards on April 6 before the opener against the New York Yankees, Matusz, Bergesen, right-handers Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman -- along with standout catcher Matt Wieters -- won't be there.

"I just think we have to careful to introduce them to the major leagues when they have a reasonable chance of being successful," MacPhail said. "To introduce them prior to that time would be, in my view, a failure on the organization's part."

So where does that leave this year's team? Probably in the same place it finished in 2008: Last in the AL East, unless its makeshift rotation pulls off a formidable surprise.

"Realistically, we're no different than any other club. First, we have to stay healthy with your main players, and two, our success will be determined on how our starting pitching goes," manager Dave Trembley said. "If our starting pitching gives us innings, and we can stay away from using our bullpen early in the season, our opportunities to take a lot more success than we did last year will be there."

The Orioles have already benefited from having MacPhail at the helm. During his first offseason with the team, MacPhail traded veterans Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada for a total of 10 players, half of whom made immediate contributions: center field Adam Jones, left fielder Luke Scott and relievers Dennis Sarfate, Matt Albers and George Sherrill.

This offseason, MacPhail signed Nick Markakis and Brian Roberts to long-term contracts and improved the team's defense by acquiring shortstop Cesar Izturis, left fielder Felix Pie, catcher Gregg Zaun and utilityman Ty Wigginton.

The bullpen is also sound. Jim Johnson, Chris Ray and Sherrill more often than not will be able to close out a victory if given a lead after six innings. The key, though, is whether any of the starters beyond Guthrie and Koji Uehara can get 18 outs on a consistent basis.

And a myriad of injuries could force Trembley to scramble to just find five pitchers to fill out the rotation. Last year he used 13 different starters, one big reason why the Orioles stumbled to a 68-93 finish after being 61-65 on Aug. 20.

"We need to build up the depth in our franchise so we can better absorb the injuries that are going to be inevitable," MacPhail said. "In that scenario we have to be better in order for us to have a winning season."

Playing in the AL East, arguably the toughest division in baseball, is difficult enough. To do so without a set starting staff makes the task far more daunting -- even with an improved defense and a solid batting order.

And if it doesn't happen this year, look out for the Orioles in 2010.

"You know what's coming. You know because you see it. You feel it, and it gets you excited," Trembley said. "The light is visible."

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